As David has noted on Slugger, the establishment of the shared island unit in the office of An Taoiseach has intensified the discussion about our constitutional future on the island of Ireland.
There is little detail in what the work of this unit will look like and how it will approach the monumental task of restarting a conversation that caused a civil war and decades of violence North and South, but we shouldn’t be surprised.
That’s how coalition governments work – a necessary, albeit frustrating, a plethora of vagaries and platitudes.
Alongside this development, the election of Boris Johnson, Brexit and a positive story of economic and social revival in the South has brought nationalism to the point where it is now itching to ask the question. And that’s fine. I am a nationalist, and I want to ask the question too.
But I also want to win, win well and win in the right way.
Election and campaign strategy at its core is about numbers – understanding how many votes you need to win and where you’ll find them. The basic numerical problem for nationalism is as follows.
If we assume, and it is an assumption (although not unreasonable), that turnout in a Border Poll in Northern Ireland is likely to be something similar to that in the Scottish Independence referendum (85%), the number of people likely to vote is roughly 1.1 million people with 50% + 1 required to win.
In 2019, the combined SF/SDLP vote in the North was 300,590 – far short of that threshold. In fact, the combined SF/SDLP vote in Assembly Elections and General Elections has never been above 345,798 (2001). Even if every Alliance Party voter voted “Yes”, it still wouldn’t be enough.
Understanding the people you need to win, who don’t support you already, is clearly very important but this is where I worry many nationalists strategists are making a fundamental error. Unlike them, the people crucial to victory do not think of the constitution as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end i.e. the comfortable life, job security, good healthcare etc.
They don’t ponder the shared island over their morning coffee whilst looking at the poster of De Valera or Carson on their wall.
So whilst nationalists, like me, go from one Zoom panel discussion to another to discuss unity, we need to realise that we’re just talking to ourselves. Changing the nomenclature to “shared island” instead of “united ireland” doesn’t change that – if anything it reinforces our own bubble mentality.
This is why timing is completely crucial because our first serious interaction with this group of people is vitally important. If they think that we’re out of sync with where their lives are, we’ve started on the backfoot (and we already have a mountain to climb as it is). We’ve shown we’re incapable already of doing the very thing we’re asking of them – listen with an open mind.
Picture the scene. The headline of the Belfast Telegraph is that Northern Ireland has entered the worst recession in its history. A nationalist knocks the door of a swing voter – let’s say someone who typically votes Alliance.
Nationalist: ‘Hello, I’m here to talk to you about the future of our shared island.’
Voter: “Oh hello, listen I’m just trying to put the kids to bed so erm, it’s not a great time.’
Nationalist: “Oh I won’t keep you long at all.’
Voter: “Well as it happens, I’ve just lost my job because of the pandemic. I’ve applied for universal credit, but they said it might take five weeks. I’m not sure how I’ll pay my mortgage or even buy food in the next few weeks.”
Nationalist: “Oh that’s awful. I’m so sorry. So, what do you think about the future of these islands?”
[The door closes.]
Alongside the timing issue, is getting the framing and nature of the process correct and there is much academic study and real life case studies to look at across the world. The problem nationalists have is that we’re entering into this conversation, with an end already in mind, with people who define a successful end somewhat differently from us. It’s a classic cart and horse problem.
To make a dialogue meaningful, credible and not contrived, we’ll need to start from the position of our audience. This means talking about healthcare, the economy and other such issues first because the ideal constitution for them is the one that delivers the best outcomes on these matters.
That means we’ll need to be open-minded about what constitutional arrangement that sort of dialogue arrives at, and it may not be the one we initially had in mind.
There is never necessarily a right time to begin the debate about Northern Ireland’s constitution, to the extent it ever stopped. But nationalists have to step back and look at the bigger picture. The allure of Brexit and a Johnson Government as an opportune moment is but to rely on external factors that can easily change.
It’s far too weak a foundation.
I’ve no doubt I’ll be trolled for being negative and talking down our shared island, but wanting to win and win in the right way isn’t being negative. If our broad movement isn’t mature enough to recognise there are different views, then we’ve got an even bigger problem.
It looks like we’re about to enter a recession that will dwarf 2008. It will cause unspeakable hardship – job losses, housing repossessions, business bankruptcy. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not sure it’s the best time for nationalism to up the ante.
Gareth Brown is a political commentator, former Stormont and Cabinet Office adviser, and a Client Director at LK Communications.